Thursday, June 5, 2008

Painful Self-Reflection: What is "America"?

(dinner with friends from Italy, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Zimbabwe, Ukraine and Egypt)

After a whirlwind three weeks at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute of Eastern Mennonite University, I am sitting here waiting to be picked up to head back home. It has been a rare moment in the last weeks that I have been able to collect my thoughts and to process all that I have been learning. I can't put it all on paper, but I do know that I am a different person than I was before I came three weeks ago.

The two classes I took, Reconciliation and Peacemaking and Identity and Conflict Transformation where both excellent classes full of tools and theories that I know I will use in peacemaking, both in the U.S. and in Israel/Palestine. Though these two classes were great, most of what I learned was outside the classroom and came from interacting with the other beautiful and amazing people from all over the world. These participants came from some 40 countries and are all working for peace in their contexts, most of which are simply mind boggling. What must it mean to work for peace in a country that has lost half of it's population to genocide? These people show such courage and strength while living in these contexts. They set an incredible example to me.

Encountering this multitude of international students, most of whom were in the U.S. for the first time, in a sense functioned as a mirror to my own country and culture as they encountered life in the U.S. for the first time. Questions such as "Why is there no one walking outside?" and "Why do Americans drive such big cars with only one person inside?" peppered my time here and encouraged me to reflect, often painfully, on our life in this place we call "America."

It seems that we "Americans," or at least we middle-class white "Americans" tend to live in a bubble. We hold strongly to this myth that the U.S. can do no wrong, that this is the country of freedom and that this is the best place in the world to live. Everyone out there (in say, Zimbabwe) is un-democratic and uneducated, while we here are a model of democracy and fullness of life. If this myth is ever challenged, very strong emotions tend to arise for people. (Is your blood pressure rising as you read this?) How would you react, for example, to the comment that the U.S. is the most violent nation in the world?

One guest speaker, Lisa Schirk, encouraged this kind of self-reflection by stating in a talk this comment: "The U.S. is the most violent nation in the world." Based on murder, crime, and suicide rates studies have shown that we are the most violent nation. This is not something we are accustomed to hearing very often. A different prof. commented in class how since World War II the U.S. has directly attacked over 50 countries. Yikes. Almost all the international participants in my classes had some very experiences with the U.S. Many of their countries had been attacked, occupied, or coerced by the U.S. in recent years. One man commented "Americans think they are God." Another noted how much of our news and media was inward focused on how little attention was given to international affairs.

I could continue to list the criticisms of the U.S. shared with me by the international students here, including those listed by the African Americans and the First Nations peoples (often called Native Americans) who attended the classes here.

These criticisms should be a wake up call for each of us, a call to reflect on who we are as individuals, communities and as a nation. Each of us needs to begin with ourself: who are we and what are becoming? How can we begin to make the necessary changes in ourselves that will lead to a different world tomorrow, a world more peaceful, loving and just.

(As usual, I would to hear your comments and feedback, so please write!)


Kacie said...

Thanks for this, Jonathan. When I got back to the US from Indonesia, I found myself completely ashamed at my country and our arrogance and ignorance. My reaction was to plan an escape - to leave and settle someplace that I could be proud of.

Many American were angered by my response. :) Now I'm attempting to find some middle ground. It is my country. I will be here for at least several years more. And, to be cliche and quote Gandi, "Be the change you want to see in the world." Giving up doesn't help. Being a voice, and educator, a researcher... might.

Also - having Obama as a potential preside makes me feel a pride and hope that I haven't felt since I was a child.

Question for you. Do you think that US should have intervened in Rwanda? That is one situation in which we held back, and Clinton says he regrets doing so. The results were mind-boggling. Do you think this would have been an appropriate place for military intervention?

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